Today is the 80th anniversary of D-Day – the day when more than 160,000 Allied forces landed in Normandy, France, as part of the largest air, land and sea invasion ever executed. The goal of the mission was to liberate Nazi-occupied France, and more than 9,000 Allied forces were killed or wounded in the first 24 hours. My husband, Jamie, and I were honored to be able to visit Normandy recently, and it was a sobering experience. What stood out to me – beyond the sheer bravery – was the level of execution behind such a mammoth task. It provides some good lessons on the nature of execution.

A recent study suggested that only 9% of companies are rated as excellent at execution. Part of the problem is that the word – execution – has different meanings to different individuals, from “getting results” to “finishing the checklist.” Based on my experience, it is far more. Execution is a true discipline that moves an organization from strategy to results, requiring both focus and flexibility. It is a continuous process of planning, prioritizing and recalibrating actions so that an organization achieves its goals in a timely manner. The mastermind behind D-Day, General Dwight D. Eisenhower, was famous for saying: “A good plan violently executed now is better than a perfect plan executed next week.”

Here are some of the major themes behind what we call “exceptional execution”:

Planning & Prioritization

Strategy is making choices about where you plan to shine (or your unique value proposition). The Normandy beaches were chosen because they were within range of air cover and were less defended. Leaders had a vigorous debate about the pros and cons of the location, but it was determined to be a less obvious choice, which they hoped would create an element of surprise. In strategic planning, you are also masterminding where you can achieve optimal success based on triangulating community need, mission, and competition. Once a plan is in development, you then have to prioritize the order of its execution. One classic tool that many use to prioritize is the Eisenhower matrix, which is named after him because he used to say: “I have two kinds of problems – the urgent and the important.


The difference between a good and a great nonprofit organization is execution at all levels of the organization, which means everyone must be aligned on direction and motivated around their role to achieve success. Without proper alignment, you get a scattershot effect, which may or may not enable you to hit your target. D-Day, also known as Operation Overlord, took two years of planning, resource gathering and training. The beach landings were planned by the minute – first the engineers at H-hour + two minutes, then service troops at H-Hour + 30 minutes, etc. This level of precision helped align resources and ensure the best results in uncertain circumstances.

Committed Action

Often, the breakdown between achieving a result and failure to launch is ambiguity, which starts and ends with committed action. Once the goal is clear and everyone knows their objective, it is crucial to bridge the gap between talk and action. Execution involves a complex web of commitments to get things done. For organizations, you can facilitate this with action plans. For individuals, it is possible through clear requests. With D-Day, each member of the Allied Forces had an objective and was trained and retrained to hit that objective – which was why, in part, the elaborate plan targeting 50 miles of the Normandy coast was successful.

In addition to the elements needed to effectively execute an initiative, we have also identified five key inputs critical for any change initiative, based on our experience and research at Social Impact Architects. All five of these inputs must be implemented in tandem for change to occur successfully, and they work even better when layered with the elements of exceptional execution.


Strategy in the real world does not follow a linear path, so you need real-time feedback loops and a qualified team to shift as needed. For D-Day to be successful, they needed a lot of things to go right: a near full moon (to guide ships), strong tides (to expose beach obstacles and float landing vehicles) and time (to have enough daylight for accuracy). Only nine days in May and June met those requirements, so planners eventually decided on June 5th. Unfortunately, weather conditions on June 5th were not ideal, so General Eisenhower shifted it one day to June 6th. And, despite all the preparation, many plans went sideways, requiring leaders to rely on their trained forces to make deliberate choices to meet their objective.

Journalists at the time called D-Day “a pure miracle;” today historians discuss it as the turning point in World War II. It is also a masterclass in execution and leadership. General Eisenhower mounted a huge effort over two years – with lots of competing opinions and changing circumstances. He was clear in his daily order to the troops: “The eyes of the world are upon you … Your task will not be easy … I have full confidence in your courage, devotion to duty and skill in battle.” He even wrote a message if D-Day failed, which fortunately never needed to be given: “[They] did all that bravery and devotion to duty could do … If any blame or fault attaches to the attempt, it is mine alone.” You can read about it in history books, but you cannot help but experience the magnitude of that day when visiting Normandy. If you have reflections on D-Day or World War II, we would be honored for you to share them.

Suzanne and Jamie in Normandy


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